During his first year as mayor, Ray Nagin has received well-deserved praise for trying to develop a cost-effective and time-efficient electronic government, or e-government, at City Hall. Among other accomplishments, Nagin, a former cable television executive, has used Internet job sites to attract private-sector talents such as the erudite Greg Meffert, the city's first chief technology officer, who is charged with modernizing the city's archaic internal information systems and introducing online services.
Under Meffert, the city's Web site has become more "user-friendly." Citizens can now pay traffic tickets and city taxes, access records and report problems -- even new potholes -- without needing to take time from work to wait in line at some doleful government building. Roughly 2,000 new personal computers have been introduced at City Hall, paid for by $2 million in savings realized by Meffert's office. The administration's gee-whiz technology also features hand-held BlackBerry wireless communications devices that allow the mayor and nearly 30 members of his top staff to exchange text messages in "real time."
We welcome the mayor's IT (information technology) movement as long as it remains compatible with the twin goals of ensuring transparency of government and access to public information. However, reported events of the past two weeks remind us that technology can have a dark side -- most of it arising from the human nature of its users.
Since the ouster of former city Chief Administrative Officer Kimberly Williamson Butler, the administration's omnipresent BlackBerries have become a source of political embarrassment for Nagin. Widely disseminated transcripts of alleged BlackBerry messages exchanged Feb. 25 depict the mayor's inner circle disparaging Butler with such indelicate phrases as, "The bitch thinks she's back." The Nagin administration has declined to comment on the authenticity of the transcripts. We have not heard the end of that story.
The BlackBerries saga highlights the myriad possibilities for abuse in e-governments statewide. If it hasn't happened already, email soon will outstrip telephone usage in government office communications. With prestige, power and potential financial loss at stake through litigation, we recognize an ugly potential for any e-government to circumvent Louisiana's public records and open meeting laws.
So, too, does the private Public Affairs Research Council (PAR), a research organization based in Baton Rouge. In February, PAR issued a timely 16-page report on e-government and Louisiana's open government "sunshine laws" titled, "The Promise and Peril of New Technology." (The report is available on PAR's Web site www.la-par.org.) "E-mail, conference calls and instant message devices make it very easy for the members of a public body to quickly confer on an issue and reach a consensus out of public view," PAR notes. "The use of technological devices to circumvent the open meetings law should be explicitly prohibited."
Mayor Nagin and the City Council should take the lead in supporting PAR's recommended changes to the Sunshine Laws. The Nagin team also should turn off their BlackBerries during public meetings as well as when they meet with individuals. The devices are, at a minimum, rude interruptions. At worst, they suggest conspiratorial communication -- much like seeing top political officials whispering in each other's ears while someone else is talking.
More specifically, we agree with the following PAR recommendations of special interest to the city:
PAR notes that Louisiana's public records law specifically "includes electronic formats." However, state law may be unclear as to what constitutes a "public record." The Legislature should amend the law to explicitly include e-mail and Web site information as public records.
State laws should be amended to permit citizens to request public records verbally or in writing "by any means," including regular mail, fax or email. The City Council should check local ordinances to ensure there is no charge for local fax and email responses to public records requests.
Metro area and parish custodians of public information should immediately develop and post written retention policies for preserving public information on paper as well as electronically.
"Without a retention policy in place, public employees run the risk of breaking the law every time an e-mail is deleted or a memo is tossed in the trash," writes PAR research analyst Charlotte Bergeron, who estimates only 40 percent of all municipalities in Louisiana have such a policy. Also, it is not likely that most local governments are saving email and Web site information for the state public records laws' general requirement of three years.
Public records custodians must train employees who handle public records. Workers should receive specific instruction on the uses of email, BlackBerries and other electronic devices for government business, with prohibitions against personal use. We also support PAR's recommendation that the public records law be amended to prohibit "access fees" for public information. Contracts with commercial vendors likewise should specify that no fees be charged to access public records.
The saga of the BlackBerries should be a wake-up call to the Nagin administration and other custodians of public records. The best use of technology is for an open, transparent government. The public is also online -- and we're watching.